Limited data access hinders investigations, PAB contends

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Restricted access to data has made investigations challenging for Rochester’s Police Accountability Board.

That was the central message in a presentation by PAB digital forensic analysts Casey Asprooth-Jackson and Tiffany Heard that headlined the PAB’s meeting Thursday night. The presentation shed light on how the agency’s level of access to Rochester Police Department data doesn’t meet investigative needs. It was spurred by calls for figures on the PAB’s data access levels during city budget talks. 

Access has been contentious since the PAB’s conception thanks to tension between the wide data rights provided by the City Charter and, as Corporation Counsel Linda Kingsley and other city and RPD officials have repeatedly asserted, state and federal laws that appear to disallow that level of access.

Kingsley and Deputy Corporation Counsel Patrick Beath dispute the PAB’s claims that RPD responses to data requests are incomplete, untimely, and sometimes inaccessible through their file sharing system.

Since last June, the PAB has sent 137 data requests to RPD. Only two of those requests were fulfilled in full, and none of those full data handovers happened in 2023, according to the presentation. It points toward a disagreement between these figures and a provision of the City Charter which states that “RPD and the City shall provide to the Board, as requested: access to all documents and evidence.”

RPD has denied data requests on a number of grounds, and many of these justifications explicitly contradict the City Charter, the PAB says. This includes charter sections that empower the PAB “to investigate any and all conducts, acts, or omissions by any RPD officer” and that give the agency the right to review the findings of RPD’s Professional Standards Section investigations.

Beath, however, notes that state and federal law disallow certain types of records from being turned over. State criminal procedure law requires arrest records, including juvenile arrests, to be sealed, and state law prohibits the disclosure of sexual assault records under all circumstances, he says.

The PAB contends that a lack of direct access to information challenges its forensic integrity.

“We can’t verify what they’ve provided,” Heard says. “We can’t verify the integrity of the data. We can’t say for sure there isn’t more out there. We often have issues viewing the files within the web browser. We can’t perform very basic analysis of the information they provide to us, especially without being able to open the files properly. 

“There are some file types that we need a proprietary software to open,” she adds. “We don’t have access to that. We can’t even download the software.”

Beath and Kingsley contest both the proprietary software issue and the legality of direct access. Under federal law, Beath says, the PAB doesn’t meet the definition of a criminal justice agency and is thus limited in its permitted access to criminal history records. The agency also doesn’t have jurisdiction over files from other criminal justice agencies involved in joint investigations held in RPD’s databases. Additionally, the charter requires the handover of information “as requested,” not through direct interfacing.

Kingsley says this request system isn’t holding anything up. RPD has provided access to 9,426 independent records, she says, even though RPD Captain Steven Swetman is the sole appointed liaison handling these requests with aid from the law department.

When it comes to proprietary file types, Beath says the issue has only been raised in the past month and that it mostly pertains to third party files involved in cases, like surveillance camera footage. This is being handled on a case-by-case basis, he says.

The PAB presentation included three recommendations. It called for download permissions, direct data access whenever possible, and for the board to use the subpoena powers afforded the agency by the charter to “compel the production of evidence.”

The PAB notes that the first two measures would stave off any impending data access time limits and pare the RPD man-hours demanded by data requests. It also says subpoenas have been used successfully by other oversight agencies across the country to extract evidence.

“The budget is going to be decided on this month, and obviously we want enough staff to do this work,” PAB chair Larry Knox said after the presentation. “But, you know, if we have all the staff that we ask for, if they’re not getting what is needed according to the charter that was voted on by the citizens, that’s a problem.”

Kingsley recognizes the disagreements between the charter and the data being turned over, but she notes that state and federal law supersede local statute. Any amendments to the charter would have to go through City Council.

“I wouldn’t disagree that there could be more clarity,” Kingsley says.

Justin O’Connor is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer and a student at the University of Rochester. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

2 thoughts on “Limited data access hinders investigations, PAB contends

  1. Some day the community, the RCSB, RCSD and……and the Police Accountability Board (PAB) will come to the realization that when we finally educate youth in Urban Rochester, crime and all the other Urban woes will be reduced significantly. While obvious, it continues to be ignored. Keep ignoring that all important education and you will see a gradual increase in misery. Get to the root of the problem, a lack of graduating kids with a relevant education, which includes vocational education………..address this sooner than later. And don’t say we are working on it…..we aint.

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